The federal government said Tuesday it's considering placing on the endangered species list a small population of dolphins that live near Hawaii and look similar to killer whales.
Depending on the outcome, the review could affect the Hawaii-based longline fishing fleet because its boats have accidentally snagged the dolphins _ called false killer whales _ in the past.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, filed a petition with the federal government last year asking that the Hawaii's near shore population of false killer whales be listed.
The group cited evidence showing the dolphins may be injured and killed after getting caught in fishing gear. The animals also have less to eat because stocks of the fish they prey on _ including tuna and mahimahi _ have been declining due to overfishing by humans, the group said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service responded with a Federal Register filing Tuesday saying that the petition included substantial information indicating a listing may be warranted.
The agency said it will accept public comments on the issue through Feb. 4.
The dolphins can grow as long as 16 feet and weigh more than 1 ton. They resemble killer whales but are almost completely black instead of black and white.
They're found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide, including Maryland, Japan, Australia and Scotland. But scientists estimate only about 120 live in waters up to 60 miles off Hawaii's coasts.
A few hundred more false killer whales live close to Hawaii in waters further out. These are considered the Pelagic population of Hawaii false killer whales.
Lance Smith, an endangered species biologist with the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the agency, said scientists would examine whether the "insular" stock of Hawaii false killer whales would be considered a distinct population of animals under the endangered species act.
If they conclude it is, the scientists would evaluate whether this population meets the criteria for a threatened or endangered species.
"It's a very detailed, scientific analysis," Smith said.
Agency officials are expected to use this status review to determine whether they'll recommend an endangered species listing.